Marriage proposals on Valentine’s Day used to be a thing. Today, not so much.
These days, many Canadians tell pollsters they think marriage is nice, but not necessary. Although marriage remains the most common family form, it has been declining for decades as Canadians increasingly live together outside of marriage or live alone. Is marriage still relevant?
Frankly, all Canadians would be better off if we recovered a healthier view of marriage. It’s more than just a piece of paper, or an expression of love. Marriage has personal and societal benefits we easily forget amid the Valentine’s Day glitz.
Decades of social science research point to a connection between marriage and better health and wellness, economic advantage, and happiness. As Cardus has reported, studies have found correlations between a good marriage and early detection of illness, faster physical recovery, and better overall health.
Marriage also has a strong connection to having kids. A recent report found that not having a suitable partner was one of the top five factors preventing Canadian women from having kids. (The same report found half of women were having fewer children than they would’ve liked – but that’s another story.)
Research suggests kids with married parents tend to do better in school and skip class less. Those same kids are more likely to be read to and are more likely to graduate than kids with one parent. They also tend to experience fewer behavioural issues.
In short, the decline in the marriage rate has implications for health, education, and fertility.
Of course, marriage isn’t for everyone, and good people come from all sorts of families. Take Barack Obama, who grew up in a lone-parent home and ascended to the highest position of power in the United States. But as his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, wrote in her 2006 book It Takes a Village, “Every society requires a critical mass of families that fit the traditional ideal, both to meet the needs of most children and to serve as a model for other adults who are raising children in difficult settings.”
So why is marriage on the decline even as social science points to a marriage advantage? One insight comes from the fact that people are marrying at later ages than in the past. Marriage used to be the starting point for building a life with another person. Consider that married student residences were once common on university campuses. Today, young adults are marrying later, often building financial security, living together, and sometimes having kids before tying the knot. When marriage is a destination rather than a starting point, fewer folks reach it.
Likely the way we talk about marriage also matters. In an era where we value individualism and autonomy, the idea of committing to one person for life may induce anxiety. Yet commitment is what makes marriage so potent.
Former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama understood this. In a conversation on RevoltTV, she spoke of a challenging 10-year period in her marriage when her children were young. “We don’t talk about how much work is required and how hard it is even when you are madly in love with the person, even when everything works out right.” The give-and-take in marriage requires commitment.
The meaning of marriage is grander than just our own happiness. In marriage, we voluntarily constrain ourselves for the good of the whole family. Marriage combines the romantic aspects of partnership with economic co-operation and often parenthood within a permanent bond. In a pluralistic society like Canada, we can respect the variety of family forms we see while acknowledging the benefits of marriage.
Also, let’s be honest about that rosy, red glow of Valentine’s Day. For those who are single or dating, it can be a stressful day. Single folks may feel more alone. Dating couples need to figure out how to mark the day. For married couples, the saccharine gloss of Valentine’s Day ignores the hard work required to maintain a committed relationship.
This Valentine’s Day, let’s consider that while matrimony isn’t for everyone, we can appreciate that the marriage commitment is still relevant. Marriage matters. For everybody.
Peter Jon Mitchell is the family program director at think-tank Cardus.